Romantic expressions of Mutability and Mortality
The Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a direct reaction to the established cultural ideals of the European Enlightenment. The values of the Enlightenment were based upon scientific rationality, but eventually this movement culminated in the bloodthirsty French Revolution, which, in turn, spawned violent upheaval throughout Europe. Many of the Romantic poets were greatly disenchanted by the barbarity displayed by their fellow man, and as a result, began to reject the logic-based, `enlightened' mindset of the times, aspiring instead to emotional ideals. Dissatisfied with humanity's progress and disgusted with constant pain and suffering in society, the Romantics often focused on beauty and emotion, including themes such as love, nature, and the supernatural. This style, though full of beauty and delight, often serves to remind us exactly of the things it rejects: man's fated mortality and the constant change of the world we live in. Two such Romantic poets who exemplified these ideals were John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both of these poets, through reflecting on mutability and human mortality, employ equally powerful styles in their poetry that, although inherently different, also share many similar aspects.
John Keats addresses the issues of mortality and mutability in Ode on a Grecian Urn. Keats views the urn and its depictions as symbols of permanence. The urn itself he calls a "historian," for it survives each generation to tell its tale to the next, for he states, "When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe." Likewise, the depictions themselves go forever unchanged, a truth which Keats elaborately expounds upon throughout much of the poem, saying, for example,
"Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"
In summary, all the beauty and emotion, the festivities of spring, the "wild ecstasy" shown in these illustrations, will never change, for they are frozen within the art.
Keats's contrast of permanence and change becomes especially evident in the last stanza. The urn is a "cold pastoral," callous to the intense longing that it draws forth from its beholder, who is painfully mortal and insignificant in its presence and, furthermore, bewildered, for the urn "dost tease us out of thought" as we attempt to grasp its eternality. The notorious closing lines express the wisdom that the urn imparts to its beholder, and they tell us exactly what we can take for granted: ""Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."" Hence, everything else in the world is shifting, inconsistent; but the urn, an ideal specimen of beauty, is immutable and immortal.
Shelley writes about mortality and mutability as well, and...